A period of transition: mission critical comms in the Nordics

Ahead of Critical Communications World in Helsinki, Philip Mason talks to the five host operator nations about the challenges facing the region, and imminent (and not so imminent) moves to mission-critical broadband.

This year’s Critical Communications World is taking place in Helsinki.

While the event is officially situated in the capital of Finland, however, there is a palpable sense that the event is, at least in a way, being hosted by the entire region.

There are several reasons for this, not least Northern European culture itself, which seems to place an extremely high value on co-operation. You can read about this in the previous issue of Critical Communications Today, which featured TCCA’s Tero Pesonen discussing ‘Success in Cooperation’, which also happens to be the theme of this year’s event.

Looking specifically at the critical communications piece itself, meanwhile, readers will also likely be aware of the cross-border co-operation which has been taking place between Finland, Norway and Sweden for years.

Naturally, this requires seamless interoperability between their respective public safety radio networks in order to facilitate mutual aid between all three countries’ emergency services.

That being the case, in this article, we are going to attempt to provide a region-wide survey of this part of the world, focusing in particular (and in no particular order) on Sweden, Estonia, Denmark, Norway and Finland.

We shall look at current networks and working practices, discussing them in light of the broader political structure of each country. We will also touch on future plans, with each of the nation states in question looking at an eventual move towards mission-critical broadband.

The state of Denmark

Located on the northern tip of central Europe just west of Sweden, Denmark boasts a population of around six million people, distributed across a just-over 40,000 square kilometre landmass. It is, like many of its northern European neighbours, relatively well off, with the average wage (according to Scandification.com) sitting at the rough equivalent of US$6,400 a month.

Despite its high standard of living, however, it still faces a myriad of challenges, both domestically and from a global perspective. These include an ageing population, the ongoing climate crisis and, of course, the impact, indirect or otherwise, of a bellicose Russia on the wider continent.

Its current nationwide emergency services radio system is SINE, which was introduced into the country in 2010. Based on the TETRA standard, SINE – according to the Danish Centre of Emergency Communications (CFB) – was introduced “in order to give [public safety] the best conditions of efficient communication when helping and protecting its citizens”.

Going into more detail about the development and roll-out of SINE, CFB technical manager Troels Schmidt Jensen says: “Our TETRA system has been up and running from the end of 2010. Discussions were started about it in 2004, following a major fire in Jutland, which resulted in multiple injuries and the death of a firefighter.

“That took place in a fireworks factory in a town called Seest. During that incident, there was a problem with co-ordination between firefighters and the police.”

He continues: “The Danish state put out the tender for the network in 2007, and we started rolling out from 2008. It stretches across the whole country, and is used by all of the emergency services on a mandatory basis.

“Before TETRA, the emergency services were using many different analogue systems in a completely decentralised fashion. Each police region had a system, the fire department had its own systems. You could probably compare it to the United States, but completely analogue.”

As well as being mandatory, SINE also shares another key characteristic with many other European narrowband networks in that it is centrally funded. It is provided meanwhile by a subsidiary of Motorola Solutions called DBK.

As discussed, Denmark finished the roll-out of SINE in 2010. In the meantime, it has become – as TETRA networks tend to – heavily relied upon, and more to the point, trusted, by its user community.

At the same time, progress marches on, something which is becoming increasingly apparent in the mission-critical communications sector via its continued interest in broadband technology.

Needless to say the Danish authorities also have an interest in broadband. If the CFB is to be believed, however, that process, at least at this stage, is far more tentative than that of some of the country’s Nordic neighbours.

Discussing the potential evolution of Danish mission-critical comms, CFB project manager Jesper Rasmussen says: “Mission-critical standards have always been at the centre of the discussion for us. What’s happening now, however, is that we’re now discussing the application of those standards from a much broader perspective.

“That of course includes the technology itself, which has developed very strongly in the past few years. We are moving towards a stronger dependency on other kinds of [broadband-enabled] tools, rather than just voice.”

He continues: “Denmark is a heavily digitalised country, certainly one of the most digitalised in Europe. This naturally affects the way that our emergency services currently deal with incidents today.

“Our studies show that almost every emergency service is using different kinds of tools to handle data. These are commercial ‘best efforts’ though, rather than mission-critical solutions.”

While expressing a clear, and perfectly logical, interest in broadband as a national public safety technology, however, Rasmussen was less forthcoming about what Danish plans might actually be in this regard.

Continuing, he says: “We don’t have any plans approved currently when it comes to rolling out emergency services broadband, but hope to have some in place later in the year.”

What he could tell me about, however, was Danish plans to prolong use of the current narrowband network, or indeed pursue an entirely new contract when it comes to the provision of voice.

“We currently have a tender on our [narrowband] voice solution,” he says. “And we expect to have a new contract handled during the fall of this year. We will also be looking at initiatives around broadband at that time.

“The voice tender is open and technology-neutral, although TETRA manufacturers have shown the most interest. We’re looking at how we can supplement our very strong voice solution with broadband. The latter will, for now, be purely an add-on.”

On the border

Heading east and slightly north from Denmark (and hopping over the southern half of Sweden), our next stop is Estonia. This is a country of just over 1.3 million people, with an approximately 45,000 square kilometre landmass.

Asked what his country’s major challenges are, CEO of the Estonian State Infocommunication Foundation, Sven Heil, is unequivocal: its Russian neighbour, directly across the border to the east. “The biggest security threat to Estonia is the Russian Federation,” he says.

“Its goal is to destroy and reshape the European security architecture and the rules-based world order and restore the policy of spheres of influence.”

According to him, other pain points include, but are no means limited to, cyber, energy and food security, climate change and terrorism. To this end, he says, defence spending in the country has reached three per cent of its GDP, with domestic security and emergency services also receiving considerable funding.

Needless to say, integral to the latter is mission-critical communications functioning at a high level. This currently takes the form of a TETRA-based nationwide system (known as ESTER) originally rolled out in 2007, the key drivers for which – according to Heil – included “secure connection, reliable devices, group calls and messages, good voice quality and coverage, and device-to-device connection”.

He continues: “Today there are over 10,000 users [of the system], including blue-light and yellow-light services, and coverage is 98 per cent of the country. Users are very satisfied with voice and message services, [which] have worked even when commercial services have not, such as during power outages.”

Given its situation as a comparatively tiny nation sharing a border with Russia, meanwhile, it is probably no surprise that Estonia has also recently launched an SMS-based public alerting solution. This was established in January of this year, following a collaboration between the Emergency Response Centre itself, alongside multiple telecom operators and technology provider Everbridge.

Discussing this – frankly rather ominously – he says: “Discussions are currently taking place today on how to further develop the public warning service, and integrate it with sirens, the ‘Be ready’ app, and other communication channels.”

Staying on the subject of new technology, Estonia also has its own plans to introduce mission-critical broadband, albeit in around a decade’s time. Discussing this, Heil says: “The plan is to introduce the broadband around 2030. The roadmap [will be according to] best practice, with a phased launch and migration [from the previous system].

“There are lots of challenges, such as user needs, legislation, technological architecture and integration with other state communication solutions. We also need to look at funding and co-operation with partners and mobile network providers.

“The vision is for the state to manage the core network and buy in the radio network. We start with the management model convention.”

Moving on to the role Estonia plays in the wider region, he mentions “bilateral agreements” with Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden and Finland, which sits to its north, across the Gulf of Finland. “Estonia is also involved in different co-operation formats with Nordic countries and pan-European associations, EU Commission and EU expert groups,” he says.

“We meet our neighbours regularly, sharing information and learning from each other’s experiences. In the field of critical communication, we actively participate in the Broadnet project, the Airbus Operators Forum, the Global Public Safety Operators Conference and in TCCA events.”

Cross-border co-operation

The two CCW host nations that we have covered so far are integral to the identity of the region. That having been said, they are still geographically quite disparate,
with one located in central Europe and the other right at the far east of the continent.

By contrast, our next three countries sit right next to one another, with two of them also sharing a border with Russia. They are Sweden, Norway and Finland.

As well as geography, however, these three nation states also share one other notable thing in common (at least for the purposes of this discussion), in that they are all reasonably advanced when it comes to the roll-out of mission-critical broadband.

Finland in particular is now widely regarded as a trailblazer in the ‘second wave’ of countries moving from narrowband to LTE, with its Virve 2 project having been central to the discussion for several years.

Before discussing the future, however, it is necessary to provide some context by focusing on the present, and in particular the systems currently in operation across all three nations.

Discussing legacy technology, head of the current Swedish mission network, Ronny Harpe, says: “The name of the Swedish TETRA network is RAKEL, which was built out around 2005.

“When we originally rolled it out, I think there were around 200 types of radio systems being used by the police and ambulance across the country. Those were [rendered obsolete] by the adoption of one national radio system. Suddenly the tools were there, and we had RAKEL to communicate with each other.”

Norway’s system, meanwhile, also TETRA-based, is known as Nødnett. This was deployed over a nine-year period beginning in 2007, again with the purpose of replacing the large amount of disparate analogue radio systems previously being used by Norwegian emergency services. It was initially delivered by Nokia Siemens Networks, with Motorola Solutions taking over the project in 2012.

Finally, in Finland, there is Virve, the construction of which began in 1998, with the network becoming nationwide in 2002. It too is based on TETRA, with technology provided by Airbus.

As mentioned, Norway, Sweden and Finland exist in close proximity to each other, situated across the Baltic Sea in the most northerly part of the European continent. They are all also uncomfortably close to Russia, with Finland sharing a 1,340km border with its much larger neighbour.

It is this geographical proximity which has famously led all three to facilitate cross-border interoperability in relation to the three systems mentioned above. This in turn enables seamless co-operation between agencies, for instance when mutual aid is required.

Discussing the original rationale behind this, and how it has been working since the original implementation over a decade ago, Harpe says: “When RAKEL was finalised, it was required that we also connect Nødnett and Virve, thereby implementing cross-border communication between different agencies.”

He continues: “This is used on a daily basis, right up until the present day. For instance, if an accident occurs in the northern part of Norway, and a Swedish ambulance is closest, the ambulance will go over and help. It’s the same with the police and other public safety agencies. I’d say that the ability to do this is saving lives, several times a week.

“As far as I know, we are the only three countries in the world which are interconnected like this with our systems. It is also one of the main drivers for our future systems, both for us and for our neighbours.”

Future systems

Moving on to the topic of future systems, Harpe says that his country has a “quite extensive” timetable when it comes to the deployment of mission-critical broadband.

This timetable was requested by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) in February of this year, with the aim of starting to migrate users between 2027 and 2029. By 2030, Harpe says, they aim to have no emergency services users on TETRA at all.

“We’re looking forward to hearing from the government in the autumn, so we can start doing the work for real by 1 January next year.”

He continues: “We’re aiming for dedicated frequencies in the 700MHz band, which will be allocated to us by the government. We need to have the infrastructure to be able to apply for
the frequencies.

“Our goal is to have state-owned and controlled radio network as a foundation. At the same time, we’re also suggesting a hybrid model, whereby we collaborate with one or several commercial operators.”

For Harpe, the advantages of the latter would be immediate comprehensive coverage, as well as increased redundancy. “They also have frequency, so we can leverage that,” he says. “Plus, they can solve issues with indoor coverage.”

Moving onto the situation in Norway, director of the Department for Emergency Communication (DSB), Eline Palm Paxal, says: “DSB and the Norwegian telecom regulator have conducted a concept study for a future Nødnett, and QA [quality assurance] is also finalised.

“These reports are – for now – exempted from public disclosure, but the next step in the process is a pre-project to prepare for procurement. DSB is waiting for a governmental decision on the concept.”

According to Palm Paxal, while waiting for the decision, DSB has started working together with user organisations to prepare for transition from current Nødnett to its next iteration. The “target scenario” for roll-out of public safety broadband, meanwhile, is something that she says she will talk more about at Critical Communications World.

While unable to discuss details around the planned roll-out itself, Palm Paxal was able to touch on timeframe, particularly as it relates to the country’s relationship with its Nordic neighbours. According to her, all three countries are committed to maintaining cross-border services “during the whole period of transition” from narrowband to broadband, and beyond. This is despite the countries moving at different paces.

She says: “The end state will be a solution based upon interoperability between standardised MCX services. For the migration period we need to find bilateral solutions. There is no one solution fits all, but it can be solved.

“Which solution depends on national choices and strategies. Securing cross-border service continuity requires therefore close co-ordination and collaboration, from the beginning of the broadband projects. We have established a common working group who are looking into different options. Working with users will be crucial.”

As mentioned, the Nordic nation which is furthest forward in its move from narrowband to mission-critical broadband is Finland. Primary suppliers for Virve 2 were finalised in 2020, with Ericsson winning the right to provide the dedicated 4G/5G network contract and Elisa handling radio access.

During the migration period, meanwhile, Airbus’s Agnet service will be used to provide what operator Erillisverkot describes as “group PTT service and seamless connectivity between Virve and Virve 2”.

Going into more detail in a joint statement, Virve COO Jarmo Vinkvist, and Virve 2 programme director Ari Toivonen, say: “Virve 2 runs the MOCN [multi-operator core network] model.

“Erillisverkot is the responsible service operator managing all the subscription and end-user services, whereas a commercial mobile network operator provides the 4G/5G radio access service.”

They continue: “[In terms of progress] the Virve 2 end-to-end service has passed security audit, enabling it to be operationally offered. A prioritised data subscription was launched last year and voice services including group call will follow during this year.

“Currently, the service covers over 99 per cent of the population, but there is still some work to be done. Elisa is extending the coverage in very rural areas to reach the target of 97 per cent geographical coverage – including national sea areas – by the end of 2024.

“Field testing is in progress to finetune radio access network parametrisation, and also to gain experience in various situations. Plenty of work still needs to be done in terms of device management and logistics to optimise the related processes.”

Discussing the challenges which the project has had to face so far, Vinkvist and Toivonen specifically mention the variety of legal and regulatory changes required before procurement could even begin. This took several years.

The procurement itself, meanwhile, was also “not easy and again required time”, while the two of them refer to the technology piece – in a masterstroke of understatement – as “complex”.

“To date we have had to update our original plan a couple of times,” they say, “typically due to underestimation of workload and complexity.” This is particularly in relation to ensuring service continuation of applications, and integration with TETRA.

This is a fascinating region, both in terms of mission-critical comms and the wider geopolitical situation. With CCW around the corner, it will be interesting to see what the sector will learn in Helsinki.